There is a particular sound that for many, along with the cry of the cuckoo, the thwack of willow on leather and the hum of a distant lawnmower, now signifies the approach of summer. It is, of course, the amplified tones of an author trying to be heard as rain drums on the roof of a marquee.
With its mushrooming tents, ranks of deckchairs and orderly queues of readers waiting to have their books signed, the literary festival is now an established feature of British cultural life. Yet just over 30 years ago, in 1983, when the Edinburgh International Book Festival was launched, it was one of only three. Today, according to literaryfestivals.co.uk, a website that tries to keep up with them all, there are more than 350 in Britain alone and a further 100 in Australia and New Zealand. Not to mention others in Gibraltar, Colombia, India, Spain, Kenya . . .
The four largest festivals in Britain are Oxford in March (now sponsored by FT Weekend); Hay, which comes to a close on Sunday; Edinburgh in August; and Cheltenham in October. Between them, they put on more than 2,000 talks and sell more than half a million tickets. This year’s Hay festival further extended its reach by teaming up with the BBC in a new global partnership to broadcast programmes, talks and debates from the giant marquees that spring up each year just outside the centre of the Welsh farming town.
Simon Prosser, publisher of the Penguin imprint Hamish Hamilton as well as a co-founder of the Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall (July), is emphatic about the importance of these events to publishers and authors. “I think they’re now an essential part of the ecology of publishing and writing,” he says. “These days, how else do you meet readers?”
An appearance at one of the big four can make a difference to book sales. “The largest tent at Hay might [hold] more than 600,” explains Prosser, “and so for a certain author who has a book just out, there could be a signing queue of hundreds of people, each of whom will buy that book.” In 2013, the Hay festival bookshop sold 35,000 books and the Edinburgh festival shifted 60,000. If the sales go through Nielsen BookScan, the point-of-sale software used by booksellers, they also count towards chart position.
Internationally, too, book festivals have become an important part of the marketing strategy. “I’ve been to the Jaipur festival twice,” says Prosser. “There were tens of thousands of people on site, and events regularly with what looked like 1,000 people. It’s really extraordinary. If you’re launching an author in India, a gig at Jaipur is considered very important.”
Indeed, authors could, if they were so minded, spend more time on the road and at festivals than at their writing desks. Yet they can often be found in festival green rooms grumbling into their warm white wine about how little they themselves are making. While audiences now routinely pay £8 to £15 per talk, authors are rarely paid more than an average fee of £150 for speaking at a festival. And that’s if they’re paid in cash at all: according to authors I spoke to who had recently done the rounds, a handful of festivals pay in kind: a rather delicious local cheese (Bridport); fizzy wine (Oxford) or inexpensive plonk (Hay).
Last year the historian Guy Walters wrote a piece for the Literary Review grumbling about the economics of a talk he gave at the Hay festival on his latest book The Real Great Escape (2013). “As I drove home, I did some maths,” he wrote. “Those 800 people had each paid £7, earning Hay a tidy £5,600. Compared to Hay’s turnover of £4m and gross profit of £1m, that’s not a huge sum but it is certainly greater than a homeopathic ratio. Hay had probably made around £1,400 from me and I had got, er, six bottles of wine. I googled the wine to see what it cost and found it for as little as £8 per bottle. So 48 quid all in, and I bet Hay paid a lot less for it than that.”
Walters concluded that: “It’s time we authors were paid not in promises of better sales and high profiles but in money. Yes, actual cash. Is that too much to ask?”
It’s tempting to agree. An author can spend the best part of a day travelling to an event and another getting home. Accommodation and travel costs are often covered by the publisher. If the author succeeds in selling books at the end of a talk, he or she will get about £1.50 in royalties for each hardback sold. That £150 fee (or box of wine) looks pretty miserly.
I called Walters to ask if he’d had any flak for his piece and whether he was now persona non grata on the literary festival circuit.
“It was the experience of Hay that made me realise I’d been a mug for far too long,” he admits. Yet the result of his moan is counterintuitive. “I now get used more often,” he says. “It’s the same logic as the art gallery owner. He realises his painting is not selling and then doubles the price. What authors must do is follow the morality of the art gallery owner: don’t half your price, don’t work for free, double your price. The money is there, authors just have to ask for it. There is no such thing as a literary festival without authors in it. It’s the one component that a literary festival can’t lack.”
Walters is not alone in questioning whether authors are being hard done by. Richard Wiseman, a psychologist and best-selling author of popular science books such as Rip It Up (2013) and most recently Night School (2014), is no stranger to the traditional festival circuit. But last year, he took part in an event organised as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for which, rather than a fee, he received 50 per cent of the event’s profits. “I think we sold 250 tickets and I got substantially more than £100.” This, he says, is a possible model for the future.
“There’s a really weird mixed-model that’s gone on, where a commercial model has grown out of a grass-roots model and the two just don’t sit comfortably together,” he says. “The worst ones are the very large book festivals that expect you to give a full show for very small sums of money. It’s exploitative and really weird that the festival organisers wouldn’t support slave labour but they would ask people to do a talk that they’re making a few thousand pounds from and the person is getting a hundred quid. I think there needs to be a repositioning there, but at the same time we need to support the small festivals that aren’t making money.”
Before authors start rushing to the barricades, however, it is worth looking at the figures a little more closely. I should come clean: for the past three years, I’ve had a small role helping to book authors for the Wigtown Book Festival, which takes place in September in Scotland. I have seen what goes into making a festival: the months of planning, hundreds of invitations to be sent and followed up, endless anxious conversations about balancing ticket-selling starry names with less well-known literary ones, non-fiction authors with novelists, local talent with international figures.
Wigtown features more than 200 events over 10 days, and the tone of the programme, the juxtaposition of events and the timing of talks is crucial to selling enough tickets to break even (the holy grail). Even then, like Edinburgh, Cheltenham and a number of other literary festivals, Wigtown is a charity, its funding coming not just from box office and sponsors such as ScottishPower but from public funders and trusts. No one involved is getting visibly richer.
A festival organiser who asked to remain anonymous, despite being bullish about the economics of book festivals and the remuneration of authors, said, “There aren’t terrific margins, so it’s all about making sure you book the right people and put them into the right venues and you sell enough tickets.” So, though authors might be tempted to look at the figures they’ve jotted on the back of an envelope and cry foul, the organiser is more sanguine. “I think authors overvalue themselves,” he says bluntly. “It’s the festival that is taking the risk.”
It’s a view shared by Jeremy Lee, whose speakers agency last year provided talent for 2,300 corporate events. These events, says Lee, pay anywhere from £1,000 to £30,000 for a speaker. But, despite what they might imagine, most authors just “ain’t a draw . . . being a fabulous author does not mean you’re a fabulous speaker”. In Lee’s half-joking view, “The only people who make money from these festivals are the caterers . . .”
It is not that it’s impossible to earn money on author tour: after all, Charles Dickens netted £20,000 – the equivalent of around £1m today – on his 1867-68 reading tour of America; it’s just that £30,000 is probably unrealistic for most modern authors, and even £1,000 is pushing it. But surely they should get more than £150?
The anonymous festival organiser begs to differ. “Bands can sell far more tickets to a live event than an author can at a far higher price,” he says. “A £10 ticket might seem like a lot for a literary event but for most bands that’s absolutely nothing. They could sell 1,800 tickets in an hour and a half for £35. It’s easy to get a mid-level author who can sell 80 to 100 tickets but trying to find an author who can sell 800 to 1,000 tickets is hard. There might be hundreds of bands or comedians who can sell at that level but there aren’t many authors.”
He gives me an example: a bestselling author with a new novel in the top 20 could be booked into a 200-seat venue where the audience is paying £10 each. If the event sells out – a big if – that’s £2,000. The author could be paid £200, the interviewer a further £150. Depending on the festival set-up, the hire of the venue could be £450. Then there would be extras such as marketing the event to help sell those 200 tickets as well as paying an event manager and hiring stewards. After expenses, the festival will be lucky to make a profit.
Of course, this calculation applies for an event hoping to sell 200 tickets. Most literary festivals will include many events aimed at smaller audience numbers. If an event featuring a brilliant young poet will only sell 20 tickets, does the poet even deserve the £150 that a festival is offering? In fact, were a hard-nosed economic view to prevail, should he or she be booked at all?
And, at the risk of its sounding like special pleading, it’s also worth remembering that while a literary festival might run for 10 days, it may well have taken the best part of a year to put together. Many festivals also run schools and outreach programmes – often for free – all year round.
Cheltenham is a good example. The 10-day literature festival is the largest of the four festivals held in the city each year (the others focus on jazz, science and music). At the 2013 Cheltenham Literature Festival, 135,000 tickets were issued for 518 events at an average price of £8.60. The festival is a registered charity and the most recent audited accounts – from the year ending December 2012 – show that the overall festival organisation (responsible for the four events) had income of £4,887,251. In the same year it spent £4,937,645 – a loss of £50,394.
A further investigation of the accounts reveals that while ticket sales accounted for income of just over £1.8m and sponsorship £1.4m, fees and salaries cost the festivals £1.8m, marketing more than £400,000 and admin close to half a million. If literary festivals book the wrong speakers or if they suffer a slump in their popularity, their organisers, publishers and authors would all be in serious trouble.
Of course, it would be good if some authors were able to earn a little more from literary festivals. As the anonymous organiser puts it, “If you’re talking to more than 500 people and you’re only getting £150, you’re being short-changed.” But, in the view of another event organiser, the real issue is that publishers have yet to grasp the marketing opportunities offered by book festivals. The same organiser said that no publisher had ever asked him to capture data from an event.
Thus, although 800 fans of an author may have turned up to sit in a marquee in a field in the rain to hear her speak, no one had thought to take their details. In the music industry this might sound wilfully reckless. Musicians and bands often employ “street teams” to take fans’ email addresses so that they can be sent email newsletters with details of competitions and advance ticket sales.
Mathew Clayton, who organises the Free University of Glastonbury with 10 speakers over three days at the music festival, books literary events for the annual Brighton Festival and is a co-director of the Port Eliot Festival, believes that to concentrate on money is to miss the point of festivals.
“In the past 10 years,” Clayton says, “the number of bookshops on our high street has dramatically decreased. The number of book reviews that appear in the traditional media has also fallen. But something wonderful has also happened – we have seen extraordinary growth in book groups, literary festivals and book bloggers. This flourishing of book culture has not been driven by publishers, the media or any kind of commercial imperative. It has been driven by readers simply wanting to talk about books – it is a genuinely grass-roots movement. Anyone who cares about the future of the book should really be celebrating that.”
He also pooh-poohs the idea that we’ve reached “peak festival”. “I think every village or place with an independent bookshop should have its own literary festival,” he says.
“There’s no reason why not. I was listening to AC Grayling in Brighton recently constructing this complex and fascinating argument about where religion came from. I thought, “Where else would I be able to hear this and have the opportunity of asking him questions?” I’m not sure I’d find it on television anymore. I think festivals have stepped into that intellectual space that television has left behind.
“Literary festivals give you the opportunity to engage in serious matters and serious thought on history, culture, science, ideas, religion,” Clayton says. “That’s wonderful.”